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Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France

Priest and Parish in Eighteenth-Century France

by Timothy Tackett

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This book provides a comprehensive collective biography of the parish priests in one diocese--their origins, education, and careers: their relationship with their parishioners; and the process by which they were politicized prior to 1789. The author's analysis uses both quantitative and more traditional historical techniques.

Originally published in


This book provides a comprehensive collective biography of the parish priests in one diocese--their origins, education, and careers: their relationship with their parishioners; and the process by which they were politicized prior to 1789. The author's analysis uses both quantitative and more traditional historical techniques.

Originally published in 1977.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Priest & Parish in Eighteenth-Century France

A Social and Political Study of the Curés in a Diocese of Dauphiné 1750-1791

By Timothy Tackett


Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05243-4


The Diocese of Gap in the Eighteenth Century

The Milieu

In June of 1785, François-Henri de la Broüe de Vareilles, newly appointed bishop of Gap, returned from his first pastoral visit and immediately recorded his impressions of the diocese: "... the most fertile imagination could never depict, nor the most energetic style express ... the horror of the trails over which we have traveled, the narrow paths skirting the base of extremely jagged mountains, surrounded by terrifying gorges." This description, coming, to be sure, from an urbane aristocrat who had spent most of his life in Paris and Poitou, was not untypical of the first impressions of other visitors to the region. Situated near the center of the Alpine massifs of southeastern France, astride the frontier between Upper Dauphiné and Upper Provence, the eighteenth-century diocese of Gap contained within its boundaries some of the loftiest mountains in the kingdom. Vet not all of the diocese was dominated by Alpine peaks. If the bishop's stay had not been curtailed by the Revolution, he might have come to appreciate the extraordinary geographic, economic, and social diversity enclosed within the territory of his diocese, a territory in which the rapid changes in landscape and altitude effected fundamental differences in the activities pursued by the populations of adjoining regions. A brief description of this physical and social milieu is essential for our understanding of the religious and ecclesiastical history of the diocese.

In general, the various natural regions of the diocese might be grouped into three principal zones: the north, the southeast, and the southwest (see Figure A). In the north, a zone of high mountains drained by the river Drac and its tributaries, the greatest natural resource was the pasturage. Vast expanses of Alpine grasslands supported herds of livestock that were often the most important source of local income and a fundamental measure of wealth. In the higher valleys of the Valgaudemar and the Upper Champsaur, the pastoral activities set the rhythms of the peasant's life, with entire families following their flocks — primarily sheep, but also cattle — in a seasonal trek up and down the mountains. The large local herds were further augmented by flocks of transhumance sheep driven up each summer from Lower Provence. During the winter months, peasants and animals hibernated together and helped keep each other warm within the large mountain houses. Inevitably, communal lands for grazing pastures were of the greatest importance; several villages in the regions of the Champsaur and the Beaumont were even bound together in joint possession of a "mountain." By comparison, cultivation was less important in many communities. The tiny vineyards and plots of rye and barley provided meager returns during the short growing season. A major exception, however, was the Champsaur. In this broad, gently sloping basin, a plentiful supply of animal fertilizers and a complex system of irrigation canals made it possible to grow substantial crops of the coarser grains (the climate was too cold for wheat). In 1789 the intendant of Dauphiné described this region as "one of the major granaries of the province." With its fields bordered by hedgerows and poplar trees, the Champsaur appeared curiously similar to the bocage regions of western France.

The southeastern zone of the diocese, drained by the river Durance and its tributaries, contrasted sharply with the north. The mountains were less imperious, the valleys wider and lower, the uncultivated areas were covered only by small pines, brush, or scrub grass; it was a landscape typical of the southern pre-Alps. While the Drac valley partook primarily of weather arriving from the Atlantic, the Durance valley was in the sphere of the Mediterranean, where the winter was milder and the real enemy of crops and animals was the long dry summer. Throughout this zone, the peasants pursued a generalized polyculture characteristic of much of the Mediterranean area. The principal crop, wheat, was supplemented by vineyards, fruit trees, and hemp fields. In the region of the Lower Durance, beyond the narrows at Sisteron, olive orchards were also important. Because the climate was dry, fertility was limited in many places by the possibilities of irrigation, but the irregular terrain prevented the construction of an extensive canal system such as existed in the Champsaur. Livestock was also important, but in many communities insufficient summer grazing lands restricted the size of the flocks or herds that could be kept. The number of animals per inhabitant tended generally to decrease from the north to the south of the diocese, and the percentage of cows declined in favor of sheep and goats. The pastoral activities in the southeast were much more sedentary and nowhere did they dominate the peasant's life as they did in the north. Throughout the year, the animals were left to graze near the village in nearby fallow lands or in plots that had already been harvested; and they were driven to and from pasture each day. Consequently, communal pasturage was much less important in the southeast than in the north.

Geographically and economically very different, the zone drained by the Durance on the one hand, and that drained by the Drac on the other, were closely linked commercially. An important trade route within the Alps followed the "sub-Alpine depression" through the Drac and Durance valleys from Grenoble to Marseilles. But the third major zone, the southwest, was less closely united with either the north or the southeast of the diocese. Known to contemporaries as the "Baronnies," it was characterized by a series of oval-shaped valleys, isolated from one another and from the outside by mountain ridges and narrow river gorges. Several of the rivers flowed west rather than east toward the Durance, so that the Baronnies tended to fall into the economic sphere of the Rhône valley. It was an especially poor and disinherited zone. The economic activities were largely similar to those of the Durance valley — wheat, grapes, sheep, and goats — but here, in the perpetual fear of a lack of bread, rye and barley and oats might be sown to the highest altitudes. Some peasants even resorted to essarts or swidden cultivation, a kind of nomad agriculture in which sections of woods or brush were set afire and crops were planted on the ashes for two or three years until the soil became sterile again. Such practices further reduced the already limited pasturelands and gave the Baronnies the smallest ratio of livestock to human population in the diocese. Only in the extreme southwest, in the shadow of Mont Ventouxf did a somewhat more prosperous economy exist. With easy communications to the Rhône valley, this area was more market-oriented and produced olives, fruit, and silk cocoons for sale in Provence and the Comtat-Venaissin.

Compared to agricultural and pastoral activities, manufacture played only a minor role in the economy of the diocese. The paucity of wood and of mineral ores, the erratic sources of water power — most streams in the southern Alps were reduced to a trickle in summer — and poor communications, all worked to discourage the growth of industry. To be sure, several of the larger towns had their little teams of cloth and leather workers. In 1788 one man in Gap was said to employ 100 women and a few professional artisans in the production of woolen clothes and blankets. The town of Serres could list 76 heads of household — over one-fourth of the total — engaged in cloth, leather, and hat manufacturing. But these were the exceptions. In general, the two or three spinners or weavers on the tax rolls of many of the villages and towns worked only part-time and for local consumption. The sub-delegate, Delafont, deplored the lack of initiative on the part of the local citizens who sold their raw materials, wool, hemp, and leather, to external markets rather than establishing their own manufactures.

Nevertheless, an important trade in comestibles and livestock brought a lively commercial activity to the little cities and towns of the diocese. In part, this was merely a local commerce reflecting the interdependence of town and country, of mountain regions and lower valleys. Gap itself was the center of a particularly active trade of this sort, which brought wine and fruit from the Middle Durance and grain, livestock, and dairy products from the Champsaur. Some of the smaller towns — especially Serres, Veynes, and Saint-Bonnet — also had important local fairs and markets. In the long-distance trade, almonds, wine, and grain were exported in varying quantities southward toward Provence. But the most important item of trade was undoubtedly livestock. This, in fact, was the real specialty of the mountain peoples of the north of the diocese. Some went as far as Auvergne and Poitou to buy young horses and mules to be raised and resold; and large numbers of sheep and calves, both those born on the farms and those bought elsewhere, were fattened for market. In the interprovincial and in the local trade, the town of Gap was the principal center of activity. Located at the crossroads of the routes from Grenoble to Marseilles and from the Rhône Valley to Italy — via the Montgenèvre pass — Gap was the largest and most animated town in Upper Dauphiné.

The Lay Population

Attempts to estimate the population of the diocese of Gap in the eighteenth century are seriously hindered by the scarcity of demographic research undertaken to date in the Hautes-Alpes. The first somewhat reliable censuses, taken at the turn of the nineteenth century, indicate a total of approximately 92,000 people. This relatively sparse population — about 20 persons per square kilometer, less than half the average density for the kingdom as a whole — was very unevenly distributed (see Figure B). There was a concentration in the regions of the sub-Alpine depression, particularly in the Champsaur, the Beaumont, and the Lower Durance. The mountainous regions on the eastern and western peripheries supported a far less numerous population, with as few as ten persons per square kilometer in the Dévoluy, the Valgaudemar, and the Upper Champsaur.

Demographic trends in the course of the eighteenth century are even more difficult to determine. The minutes of the bishops' pastoral visits sometimes include the number of families or communicants, but not in a consistent form. Unfortunately, there are no complete intendancy censuses in Dauphiné after 1748. In order to evaluate the broad patterns of demographic change in the diocese, we have compared the figures given by the intendant for the number of households per community in 1748 with a partial series of figures available from two sources on the eve of the French Revolution. While a certain margin of error must be allowed as to the absolute value of these figures, they can nevertheless give us an indication of the relative population change in the various zones of the diocese during the second half of the eighteenth century (see Table 1). We thus find an increase of about 10 percent in the number of households in the diocese within Dauphiné. But the increase was substantially less in the Durance Valley and the Baronnies (1 to 7 percent) and substantially greater in the regions of the Drac Valley (11 to 15 percent). The most rapidly expanding population was in the countryside adjoining the town of Gap. Gap itself may have grown by as much as 50 percent in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Perhaps the salient characteristic of this population was its seasonal mobility. Many of the Alpine peoples temporarily left their homes in winter, or even in summer, impelled by the double necessity of rationing the family's winter stores (it was usually only the men and boys who left) and of finding work to supplement the annual income. The "Gavot" — the inhabitant of the Gapeçais — was the generic name for the colorful peddlers and migrant day-workers who descended from the Alps into Provence and Languedoc each year. Invariably, this seasonal migration also paved the way for the permanent migration of families toward the Mediterranean. The Alps had always been a major reservoir of men for the low countries.

One fraction of the lay population, however, must be carefully distinguished from the rest. Since the era of the Reformation, a small but determined Calvinist minority had left its mark on the history of the French Alps. No reliable statistics are available for the Protestant population at the height of its strength in the early seventeenth century. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, about 5,100 "newly converted Catholics" remained in the diocese, approximately 6 percent of the total population. They were most concentrated in the Baronnies and in the valleys of the Drac and the Buëch — representing as high as 22 percent of the Serrois and well over 50 percent in certain villages; they were almost absent from the Durance Valley and the Provençal portion of the diocese (see Figure C). In the course of the century, their numbers would decline somewhat further, to about three and one-half percent of the population of 1800. Yet this small, tenacious group of nonconformists would remain a factor to be reckoned with by the representatives of the Catholic Church.

Considering the sharp geographic, economic, and demographic contrasts within the diocese, it is not surprising that community structures also differed considerably from region to region. In the valley of the Drac and the adjoining mountains, the large, thatched-roof houses were commonly dispersed through the countryside in numerous hamlets and isolated farms. It was perhaps the hamlet rather than the village that formed the natural unit of local society after the family. Nevertheless, inter-community cooperation was strong. It was necessary because groups of communities jointly possessed tracts of mountain pastures and, in the Champsaur, because the network of irrigation canals that contoured the valley crossed the territory of several villages in succession. The loose associations of communities in the Drac Valley and the Valgaudemar were the distant relatives of the "valley republics" of the Briançonnais. The impression gained from research in the capitation rolls of the Old Regime and the censuses of the Revolutionary period is that this hamlet society of the northern portion of the diocese was overwhelmingly rural. The occupational structure, as described in these documents, was simple in the extreme. There were the laboureurs and the journaliers and a few rentiers; but, except in the largest towns, such as Saint-Bonnet, the non-agricultural occupations were rare.

South of the Gapençais and the Bochaine, dispersion of dwellings existed, particularly in the Baronnies, but the central, clustered, hill-top village of tile-roof houses was much more typical. The east-west line marking the frontier between the thatched-roof villages and the tile-roof villages separated the typical mountain communities from the typical meridional communities. Within the southern regions a much more complex division of labor was to be found. Although the agricultural occupations continued to be dominant, there was also a whole array of professional shopkeepers, artisans, and merchants living in the villages along with the masses of peasants. Compared to the villages of the north, those of the Durance Valley seemed already much more akin to that type of "urbanized village" — the village that was almost a town in miniature — so characteristic of Lower Provence.

The geography, the economic activities, the community structures, and the demographic trends of the various regions of the eighteenth-century diocese of Gap all point to the existence of a major dichotomy between north and south. Even in such cultural realms as the patterns of popular folklore and the rates of masculine literacy, the same frontier between a sphere of Dauphiné and a sphere of Provence seemed to exist. The extent to which this dichotomy was accompanied by differences in the religious culture of the diocese is a subject which we will examine further in the following chapter.


Excerpted from Priest & Parish in Eighteenth-Century France by Timothy Tackett. Copyright © 1977 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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